Meryl Streep, looking less glamorous than usual for Into the Woods.
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Stephen Sondheim: A life’s work in progress

On Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday, he will be revered as the genius of musical theatre. But his failures are just as fascinating as his successes.

Of all the tributes bestowed on Stephen Sondheim, the most revealing is the birthday concert. A composer-lyricist, Sondheim, who turns 85 in March, writes his songs within a context at once dramatic and musical. But in the events at the Royal Albert Hall and Lincoln Centre to mark his eightieth birthday, as in the revue shows Side By Side By Sondheim and Putting It Together, songs conceived as dramatic monologues or narrative set pieces, and studded with internal allusions and motifs, are wrenched from their setting and treated as “hits”. A faulty show can be reduced to a couple of ear-catching moments; a song that seemed wrong for the character – an accusation that Sondheim now levels at most of the lyrics in West Side Story – is free to show its virtues. This act of filleting is consistent with a wider process whereby Sondheim’s vices and off-days have been tippexed from the record, leaving only genius.

It’s a word that follows him around. In his 1997 book on musicals, Mark Steyn called the chapter about Sondheim “The Genius”, with the inverted commas left implicit. The opening chapter of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (OUP) talks bluntly of “Sondheim’s genius”. The rival views that a) Sondheim betrayed the musical – held by Steyn, John Lahr and others – and that b) he revolutionised it – shared by the contributors to the Oxford Handbook – is a suitable response to his mixed heritage. A boyhood apprenticeship to Oscar Hammerstein (the lyricist of Show Boat and Oklahoma!) was followed by training with Milton Babbitt, a disciple of Schoenberg and author of the notorious essay “Who Cares If You Listen?”, which advocated a retreat from the “social aspects of musical composition” into a world of “private performance”. Sondheim himself has no trouble finding overlap. He stresses that Babbitt – the composer in his own right of the 1946 musical Fabulous Voyage – would assign Hammerstein songs for analysis. And he reserves special affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly antisocial Allegro, an earnest morality tale with a Greek chorus, one of the few forerunners in the Broadway canon of his own “unlikely” musicals, among them Pacific Overtures (1976), a slice of geopolitical history set in 1850s Japan, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) and, greatest of all, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), about the composition and afterlife of Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

As with most acquired tastes, the alternative reaction tends towards allergy, with no room for what the impresario in Sondheim’s 1981 show Merrily We Roll Along calls “sort of in between”. What has been lost, in the Sondheim skirmishes, is a sense of proportion. To his admirers, overzealous in defence, Sondheim has become a writer of musicals that never – not for even a minute – repelled a thoughtful audience with ostentation in wordplay or desperation in rhyme, with underfed melodies or overworked parodies, with glibness or gloom. A reluctance to cheer equals a failure of discernment. If you’re not part of the ovation, you’re part of the problem. And so a composer-lyricist who dares to alienate and annoy is borne heavenwards on a wave of what Steyn called “popular unpopularity”.

In commercial terms, the take on Sondheim which mattered – playing no small part in securing the unpopularity – was that of the New York Times, whose critics Walter Kerr and Frank Rich covered Broadway during the period in which Sondheim wrote all of his important work: Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd during Kerr’s tenure, Merrily We Roll AlongSunday in the Park with GeorgeInto the Woods (1986) and Assassins (1990) during Rich’s. Where Kerr panned show after show but declared Sondheim “the most sophisticated composer now working for the Broadway theatre”, Rich struck a more coherent balance, opening his first Sondheim review, of Merrily’s famously bad (and brief) initial run, with a crisp statement of what used to be a recognised yes-but position, before hero-worship washed it away: “. . . to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals”. It may be true, as he wrote in a later article, that people were never “neutral” about Sondheim, but ambivalence, too, is increasingly off the menu.

The perception (strengthened by Rich’s stubborn insistence on holding him to his own standards) that Sondheim was unloved in his homeland was among the factors that led to his adoption over here. As Steyn put it, the American public made Lloyd Webber “a multi-gazillionaire” but the British establishment made Sondheim “an artist”. It was Sondheim, and not Lloyd Webber, who was the inaugural Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, Sondheim who received his own Prom. (His next biographer is the former Independent journalist David Benedict.) In the Oxford Handbook – based on a university conference held almost a decade ago at Goldsmiths – the American-born, London-based critic Matt Wolf, after asserting that Sondheim has “always held unique pride of place in Britain”, points out that the subsidised London theatre liberated his work from “the commercial dictates that rule on Broadway”.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, revival after revival ensured a Sondheim boom at just the point that the new work dried up. While directors such as Declan Donnellan, Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage mounted productions of Sweeney ToddAssassinsCompany and Merrily, Sondheim busied himself with curatorial projects, tweaking old shows and working on two books of annotated lyrics – Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat – that offer a tour of his principles and methods (musical theatre’s counterpart to Henry James’s prefaces). His sole addition to the oeuvre in this period was a musical about the enterprising Mizner brothers – an architect and an entrepreneur who were well known in the 1920s – that first appeared, in Mendes’s 1999 workshop production, as Wise Guys, briefly became Gold! and then Bounce, before arriving in 2008 under the title Road Show at New York’s Public Theatre, where it was greeted as little more than a non-turkey. (Back in 2000, Sondheim was already saying it had consumed too much of his time.)

His current work-in-progress, altogether more promising, is a musical that merges two of Buñuel’s films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (His Bergman adaptation, A Little Night Music, is one of his best-loved shows – and produced his best-known song, “Send in the Clowns”.) For the time being, though, his reputation continues to depend on revivals, including, over the coming months, such tributes as a concert performance of A Little Night Music at the Palace Theatre on 26 January and a ten-night ENO residency for the Lincoln Center’s Sweeney Todd, with Bryn Terfel in the title role and Emma Thompson as his pie-baking accomplice, Mrs Lovett. More significant is the West End transfer of Chichester’s celebrated production of Gypsy, one of three shows for which he wrote the lyrics but not music (the others being West Side Story and Do I Hear a Waltz?), opening at the Savoy a week after his birthday. Kicking off festivities a little early is the ongoing run of Assassins, staged in traverse by Jamie Lloyd, the director credited (by Sondheim, among others) with finally making sense of the problematic Passion (1994) in his 2010 Donmar Warehouse production. (Assassins, which runs until 7 March, is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has replaced the Donmar as Sondheim’s official London home.) There is also a long-awaited film of Into the Woods, his Grimm Brothers mash-up, directed by Rob Marshall, and starring Meryl Streep as the Witch responsible for bringing the hapless Baker (James Corden) into contact with the Wolf (yet another Johnny Depp moustache), Rapunzel and co.

Variations on a tone: Sondheim’s form as a composer and lyricist runs the gamut from turkey and cliché to sublime artistry. Photo: Piotr Redlinski/New York Times

One of the myths of Sondheim’s production history is that resourceful directors undo the wrongs of those who went before, shedding light on a show’s too-long-hidden glory. In reality, Sondheim’s shows have often been better served by directors than the other way round. In Maria Friedman’s 2012 Menier production of Merrily, the one weak link was the backwards-running narrative – a pair of disillusioned Broadway songwriters end up wide-eyed – which doesn’t refresh, merely reverses, a familiar trajectory, and doesn’t complicate, simply flips, the surface tone and meaning of half a dozen wonderful songs. Another standout revival, Tooting Arts Club’s production last year of Sweeney Todd – staged in a pie-and-mash shop and sung with clarity and gusto – managed to thrive despite that show’s blockish characters, pantomime-ish predictability and hectic final third.

Jamie Lloyd and Rob Marshall deserve similar praise for bringing conviction (Lloyd in Assassins) and charm (Marshall in Into the Woods) to shows that don’t hang together. Having abandoned irony and neatness in the open-hearted, free-form Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim proceeded to write a pair of shows built around a gimmick-conceit – a fairy-tale musical! A political-murder musical! – and full of winky wit, lame wordplay (“If the end is right,/It justifies/The beans!”) and sweated-over punchline rhymes, as in the Wolf’s “There’s no possible way to describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal!”. Where Sunday uses a delicate musical counterpart to Seurat’s pointillism, the score to Into the Woods is all plinky placation, showing that, as one of the better songs (“I Know Things Now”) puts it, “Nice is different than good,” while Assassins offers a succession of formal parodies in place of a score that ramifies or accretes. (The parodies in Follies, better justified by its nostalgic story and theatrical setting, capture the forms’ original feeling as well as being clever at their expense.)

An aim of both these musicals is to solve the problem of what Sondheim calls “the monolithic chorus”, the musical-theatre convention whereby several characters seem to be expressing an improbable common aim. The opening and closing number of Assassins, “Everybody’s Got the Right” (“Everybody’s got the right to be happy”), sung by the whole cast, is designed as an anthem for the dispossessed – residents of an alternative America who can neither “be a scholar” nor “make a dollar”. The opening number of Into the Woods, “I Wish”, like the piece as a whole, works better partly because the characters are united by wishing without harbouring the same wish – and interrupt each other to that effect. The need to give Assassins a semblance of unity is evident in the idea of John Wilkes Booth as the muse of presidential assassins. Yet even this conceit doesn’t emerge until the final sequence, when Booth urges Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate American hope for good – which, given that we have already met characters with a fervent wish to kill later presidents, hardly stands up as a historical thesis.

But what is most disappointing about Sondheim’s later musicals is that, although they enable him to use song as a vehicle for drama and ideas, they inhibit his greatest gift as a songwriter, which is also his greatest contribution to the musical – the capture in writing of songs that evoke the moment of thought in movement. In the final song of Company, for instance, the Peter Pan-like central figure talks himself into accepting love, the grounds of his resistance (“Someone to need you too much./Someone to know you too well”) mutating into a plea: “Somebody, need me too much./Somebody, know me too well.” The opposite decision is rendered with equal sympathy in Sondheim’s most intricate monologue, “Finishing the Hat”. The title line, associative rather than grammatical, announces what the women in Georges Seurat’s life “have never understood” (“Finishing the hat/How you have to finish the hat”), setting off a long stream-of-consciousness sentence in which Georges weighs the urge to create against his desire for companionship. (The final line declares the winner: “Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.”)

But whereas the historically cloudy Seurat could be built from Sondheim’s tailored sense of his character, Booth and Oswald and the ardent wishers who form a makeshift nuclear family in the woods are defined in terms of their actions – actions more or less fixed by the record and the Grimms. Motivation is mocked up after the fact. If these shows can nevertheless form the basis of a striking production and a diverting film, that is because Sondheim’s touch is never entirely absent. As with any great artist, the things that don’t work spring from the same sensibility as the ones that do, and serve to throw them into relief.

“Into the Woods” (PG) is on general release from 9 January

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror